Poetry magazine at 100, with thanks for Ruth Lilly for a healthy future.
Poetry magazine, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, calls itself “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English speaking world.” Published by the Poetry Foundation, it looks securely toward the next 100 years, thanks to Ruth Lilly, great grandchild of Col. Eli Lilly who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals.
In 2003, she gave the Poetry Foundation $100 million. The gift was designated to bring poetry back into the center of American culture, promoting its presence in schools, on the internet and through the magazine. It also led to the construction of the $21.5 million headquarters that opened in June 2011 at Dearborn and Superior in Chicago. Designed by John Ronan, the building was dubbed “a little gem” by The Wall Street Journal's Joel Henning. More on that later.
Ruth Lilly, the heiress, was also a poet who submitted poem after poem under an assumed name to Poetry magazine from her home in Indianapolis. None was ever selected. She held no grudges. It’s all about the work, Ms. Lilly said. She died in 2009.
There is a lovely photograph of Ruth Lilly on the Poetry Magazine website with tufts of light hair and a mysterious unposed face. Did anybody imagine she was posting anonymously from Indianapolis all those years, this amateur poet who loved poetry enough to leave a $100 million for its English language resurrection?
Harriet Monroe, poet (she rhymed) and onetime critic for the Chicago Tribune, founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912, not long after returning from a trip to China. The motto of the magazine was Whitman’s line "To have great poets there must be great audiences too.”
Monroe called the policy of the magazine an “open door,” publishing whatever was current in the world of poetry. Poetry the magazine was among the first to publish T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Carl Sandburg, helping to create reputations for many of the greatest poets of the 20th and now 21st century. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by the-then-unknown T.S. Eliot was published in Poetry in 1915.
Ezra Pound helped define the Imagist ethos from inspiration he took from Chinese poetry. His poem “At a Station in the Metro” was first published in Poetry magazine in 1913:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In the early days of Poetry magazine, the Imagists were most popular, as defined by Pound a lean and undecorative poetry. “These poets have bowed to winds from the East,” Monroe wrote. Imagism featured an economy of language that could not have been more different from its romantic predecessors.
But Poetry magazine has been proud to not be associated with any one institution, poetic or critical movement. Now the Poetry Foundation, that publishes the magazine, is its own institution, with a remarkable building in Chicago. It is one of three buildings in the country dedicated specifically to the art of poetry; the others are in Manhattan and Tucson, Ariz.
The University of Arizona built Poetry Center in Tucson in 2007. Its architect Les Wallach cited a design principle he called “a progression toward solitude,” taken from a line from a Richard Shelton poem, “... you shall learn the art of silence.” He imagined “the space where poems are housed is itself a sort of organism, or environment in which poets are made.” It has a collection nearing 70,000 pieces and features “turning wall” – evoking paradox by allowing filtered sunlight to enter the library space.
Before the Tucson building, a poetry organization was founded in 1960 by Ruth Stephan, a poet, writer and film-maker who began visiting Tucson in the 1950s. She published in Harper’s and Forum and, with her husband, artist John Stephan, founded the quarterly of art and literature called “Tiger’s Eye.”
Stephan wintered in Tucson and donated her property to the University of Arizona, Poetry Center’s first home, along with a considerable poetry library. She, who died in 1974, grew up in Chicago, the daughter of Charles Rudolph Walgreen. That’s right -- one could not make this stuff up – her dad was the founder of Walgreens.
Poets House near Battery Park in Lower Manhattan dedicated its own building in 2009. It has no connection to drugs other than what might have inspired some of its poets. When you walk through it, sensors in the stairway trigger a recorded line of verse. The late Stanley Kunitz, who lived to be 100, was one of the founders of Poets House in 1985. “I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through it and see the world,” he said.
“Poets need a refuge — they need a hideout, a clubhouse,” this from the actor Bill Murray who gave one of the key gifts to Poetry House and is one of the regulars in its annual Poetry Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge reading Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
These three projects are results of gifted practitioners and generous supporters of poetry -- but none combining as much generosity and fame and selflessness -- as Ruth Lilly.
Of course there is no intrinsic connection (I think) between poetry and drugs, evoking paradox, other than the sense identified by Kipling (he died in 1936): Words are the most powerful drugs used by [hu]mankind.
James Stone Goodman is a rabbi and a poet.